Gaining Acceptance for New Erosion and Sediment Control Products and Methods

Sept. 1, 2003
As National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase II rules challenge developers and builders with stricter construction-site regulations, an abundance of new products emerge, aimed at assisting contractors in erosion and sediment control (ESC). Manufacturers of new ESC products confront many challenges as they pursue acceptance for their products. In turn, permitting authorities attempt to evaluate effectively the new measures available.
Manufacturers committed to developing and marketing their own products often undertake Herculean efforts as they strive to gain formal acceptance and achieve widespread use. Roger Singleton, CEO of Silt-Saver Inc. in Conyers, GA, entered the erosion control market four years ago with high hopes – now tempered by experience – that he could make a difference. A residential developer in the Atlanta area for more than 25 years, Singleton designed his Silt-Saver device after experiencing his own failures with silt fence used on construction sites for inlet protection. “Silt fence has been a widely used product for the last 20 years, and it’s been used in a lot of places it was not really designed for,” he explains. The Silt-Saver device consists of a rigid, circular frame supporting a geotextile fabric filter and fits over a sewer or drain opening. “Our principle is to capture the silt aboveground before it ever enters the piping system,” states Singleton, “because once it gets there, it’s on the way to the streams.” The rigid frame gives the device the strength to hold up under the pressures of water, silt, dirt, and mud, and the filter provides the capability to flow water through and capture the silt. He emphasizes the role his Silt-Saver device can play in maintaining a high environmental standard: “On new construction, the only way silt can leave the site is from the perimeter or through the inlets. If you protect your perimeter with silt fence like it’s designed for, and you protect your inlets without failure on the inside, you’ve done a good job. But when it rains and the silt fence protected inlet fails, releasing silt and mud, you’ve done nothing.” Tom Carpenter, CPESC, CEO of Carpenter Erosion Control in Ankeny, IA, takes a different approach to remedying the failures of silt fence. He developed the “static slicing” technique of installation, a precise and consistent method employed by the tommy Silt Fence Machine. Carpenter explains that traditional silt fence installation by trenching often provides inadequate depth and backfill and no soil compaction. He cites United States Environmental Protection Agency research indicating that compaction is the critical element to prevent washout with silt fence installation. Carpenter’s experiences with obtaining initial acceptance of his product from permitting authorities have been positive, “because the installation is so superior to what everybody has seen,” but he hit a stumbling block when authorities failed to upgrade the trenching specifications that the same EPA research concluded were inadequate. With no incentive to change methods, Carpenter believes that contractors are slow to adopt the new process. He finds that permitting authorities often maintain the “big misconception” that the method of installation is inconsequential. “How it’s installed makes all the difference in the world. If you don’t install it properly so it works, it’s a complete waste of money,” Carpenter contends. “That’s a point I fight every day.”This blown-out silt fence is trenched and was poorly compacted.A properly installed sliced silt fence working as intended.A sliced installationSteve Iwinski, president of Applied Polymer Systems Inc. in Woodstock, GA, qualifies as a veteran in establishing new ESC technology, with more than 25 years of experience in working with polyacrylamides. “We deal with combinations of water-soluble polymers to remove turbidity and particles from stormwater and/or construction-site water,” he explains. Iwinski’s company creates site-specific polymers for each application, dealing with thousands of polymers and polymer combinations. He points out that polymers should not be viewed as an isolated method but should instead be used in combination with other best management practices (BMPs). Iwinski views his company’s successes through a very long lens, crediting thorough preparation, a user-friendly approach, and patience. He believes it takes 10 years to establish the learning curve and gain sufficient professional knowledge in any form of business. Permitting authorities evaluate the ESC plans submitted by contractors applying for construction permits. Typically a permitting agency offers a suite of approved ESC methods and products and varying amounts of flexibility in considering new approaches. The State of Maryland operates under a straightforward process, according to James Tracy, chief of the Sediment and Stormwater Plan Review Division for the Nonpoint Source Program, Water Management Administration, of Maryland’s Department of the Environment (MDE). Material specifications are contained in the 1994 Maryland Standards and Specifications for Soil Erosion and Sediment Control, known as “the standards.” Tracy explains that, in construction drawings submitted for review and approval, contractors may incorporate any manufacturer’s product required for construction of the specified measure or device that meets or exceeds the material specification contained in the standards. If a new product or device is proposed for a project, specifications must be submitted for review. “When testing or performance data are available,” Tracy elaborates, “they should also be submitted. If a new material, not included in the standards generic material specifications, is proposed, the Maryland Department of Transportation [DOT] State Highway Administration material testing laboratory performs the necessary testing for MDE.” Tracy considers one of the advantages of Maryland’s approach its simplification for the design engineer, the contractor, and the inspector. He concedes that engineers and contractors not familiar with the standards, such as those outside of Maryland, might be disadvantaged by the structured approach. Tracy believes, however, that his agency remains receptive to innovative practices, as long as any new product or method is proposed for a specific project. Tom Cheatham, development director for Newton County, GA, views his primary ESC permitting as “by the book” – in this case the Manual for Soil and Erosion and Sediment Control in Georgia, known as the “Green Book.” Newton County, less than 30 mi. east of Atlanta, currently is the nation’s seventh-fastest-growing county, and Cheatham values the needed consistency of following the BMPs listed in the state manual. But that framework doesn’t prevent him from encouraging the use of promising ESC practices, initially in limited tests on small areas, as he has with Roger Singleton and other local builders. Cheatham believes in the importance of flexibility: “I’m always open to new ideas because no two jobs are alike; what worked on one job is not [necessarily] going to work on the next one.” But more sensitive areas are off-limits to experimentation. “In buffer, stream protection, and critical areas,” he states, “we’re going to go by the approved options out of the manual.”Leo Holm, section director of the Environmental Division of Minnesota DOT, explains that contractors can choose from a menu of different brands, suppliers, and manufacturers of ESC products. This menu is termed the Product Acceptability List. Holm emphasizes, though, that Minnesota does not share the “very bureaucratic, step-by-step process” of many states, believing that it prevents creativity. “We allow a contractor some flexibility if they know of new products or different kinds of things they’d like to try on a trial basis.” He adds that Minnesota DOT is reluctant to employ new ESC measures in sensitive situations, such as inlet protection, or to allow new techniques considered unproven or potentially toxic. Holm strongly supports the flexibility his agency’s approach affords, though he realizes that sometimes contractors find it confusing. Hitting SnagsSingleton found the bureaucracy of Georgia DOT particularly frustrating as he sought approval for the Silt-Saver, and he believes the system is not set up to accept new products. He describes weeks of testing, “but [with] no test criteria … no performance standard that I had to achieve.” From Steve Iwinski’s perspective, Singleton’s six-month acceptance period would seem speedy. “You’re looking at a lead time of two, possibly three, or maybe even four, years before the product is accepted by the [Georgia] Department of Transportation,” points out Iwinski, “because they have to put it into the bids and convince contractors that the product is viable.” He finds greater success in aiming smaller, at individual counties and municipalities. “We start to show that they can really improve [erosion control] and reduce their costs.” This success can lead to turnaround within DOT, Iwinski explains, when the agency is pressured by political activists familiar with county-level ESC innovations.Manufacturers often encounter their largest hurdles after products are listed as acceptable ESC practices. Tom Carpenter sees the long history of traditional silt fence installation on construction sites as a huge barrier to change. “Inspectors still aren’t trained to look for a good installation. When contractors don’t have inspectors who are properly trained, what is their incentive to invest in new equipment and training?” He believes the only way developers will improve silt fence installation is if permitting authorities upgrade trench specifications. He notes that most silt fence specifications are 25 years old, with no research in place to back them up: “Silt fence has one of the worst reputations in the industry because it’s been improperly installed all these years.” Carpenter recognizes that contractors on a low-bid approval system are governed by finances and have no real economic incentive to determine which silt fence method installs the best. He therefore believes the burden for change lies with permitting people and those determining performance specifications.Permitting authorities and manufacturers alike believe that costs of respective ESC measures are the most likely factor influencing builders’ choices. Pressured to offer the lowest bid possible, contractors are less likely to take on a new ESC method, even if long-term costs might be reduced by a fresh approach. Singleton found it difficult to convince contractors to switch from silt fence to Silt-Saver devices because Georgia DOT specifications didn’t list a pay item for inlet protection, his area of focus. Silt fence was always paid for through linear footage, he explains, “and if it fell down they paid for more linear footage to put it back up.” Similar to Carpenter, Singleton finds the lack of updated specifications a hindrance to product development. In soil erosion manuals such as Georgia Soil and Water’s, the storm drain inlet section will list a variety of measures, including silt fence, baffle box, block and gravel, or Singleton’s frame and filter. He explains the dilemma: “If contractors are allowed to incorporate these methods, regardless of performance, as equal and [permitting authorities] take the cheapest bid, then none of the performing items will ever get in the marketplace…. There’s no incentive for a contractor to adopt a new device, and there’s no penalty if they don’t.” Manufacturers emphasize the cost-efficiency of their respective products once contractors make the initial investments in new technology. Silt-Saver is easily installed and is reusable. Accounting for costs of failures with traditional silt fence, Singleton projects a $73-per-use cost for Silt-Saver versus an estimated $123-per-use cost for traditional silt fencing. Carpenter promotes the high productivity of the tommy Silt Fence Machine as sufficient to lower installation costs. The static-slicing technique with the tommy machine is “at least twice as fast [as trenching],” maintains Carpenter, “because you’re not handling all that dirt, backfilling. And you eliminate the labor input.” Iwinski explains how overall costs are reduced with his products as contractors get better applications, get better results, and eliminate cleanup costs. He relates his maximum costs of the polymeric materials, $70/ac., as quite reasonable. “When you apply the correct polymer materials with matting, straw, or mulch and then put the silt fence in, nothing washes. The grass grows … there’s no cleanup to do. Is there less expense? Boy, you bet.”Tom Cheatham sees firsthand the reluctance of some developers to take on additional up-front costs associated with new approaches. As development coordinator in a fast-growing county, he finds that stiff fines levied when erosion control BMPs are out of compliance impact smaller contractors but are “almost worth it” for larger developers to avoid adopting newer ESC measures. Because the monetary amount does not substantially cut into larger profits, Cheatham doesn’t consider this his most effective weapon in these cases. With a repeat violator, “we require a $3,000-per-acre bond before he gets his next permit. That does have an impact because it draws down on his line of credit.” The frustration manufacturers experience over what they consider to be outdated standards brings them into conflict with permitting authorities over what is considered taking proprietary interest in particular products. Carpenter finds that even when he supplies data supporting the effectiveness of the static-slicing technique, most permitting authorities won’t upgrade trench specifications to specifically require static slicing, with either the tommy Silt Fence Machine or an equal method. He believes that permitters, in their reluctance to specify a proprietary product, don’t understand the “or equal” clause. With upgraded specs, “people could still trench or use whatever method they want; all [that authorities] are doing is setting a standard, a performance specification…. It sets a higher bar.”Singleton understands why permitting authorities are generally reluctant to endorse a product by name, and he too sees establishing minimum standards as the answer. “If we had minimum performance standards on the items being used for inlet protection, they would have to flow water at a certain rate, have the capabilities of withstanding so many inches of silt and the water pressure from outside without failure.” Singleton is mystified that so many other elements of construction, such as laying pavement, are held to performance standards, yet “when it comes to water quality, we throw all these principles out the window.” He sees the performance standard issue in black and white: “If a product works, use it; if it doesn’t, take it out of the treatment train so that better-performing products can move in [or] we will never achieve the quality of water needed for the future.” Although Cheatham supports the use of promising ESC measures in Newton County, he stops short of officially requiring a successful product by name. He believes that Silt-Saver is “the best thing we have going” for catch basin protection, and he frequently recommends it to builders. But Cheatham simply doesn’t find it appropriate to demand use of a particular product, as he views that choice as one to be determined between manufacturer and builder. He’s open-minded to a wide range of ESC products, as long as they are effective: “The bottom line is what I’m looking for: Does it work?”This water clarification project was designed for 15,000 gpm of stormwater to be treated with the Floc Log from a mass-graded site. It survived two 100-year storm events within a 10-day period.Leo Holm takes a more unusual stance on issues of propriety, as he is willing to require use of a particular method, including the tommy Silt Fence Machine, if it meets a standard not achieved with any other approach. “I’d like states to be more explicit about what they want,” he says. “This business of saying this [method] is equivalent to that, and that is equivalent to this – a lot of times it really isn’t. So, in my mind, just say what it is you want.” Holm admits that sometimes contractors dislike such narrow requirements, but he likens his process to specifying windows for a house under construction: “If you wanted a certain kind of window installed, you would specify that; you wouldn’t say ‘equivalent’ because windows are all made of glass and there could be a zillion different brands.” He notes that contractors do their own footwork in choosing among many different suppliers for a required method. He believes a great deal of environmental benefit arises out of being more specific in project demands, by allowing Minnesota to maintain high project specifications. Contractors might be unwilling to try new ESC products or practices if they fear additional liability in the event of a product failure such as a breach. Cheatham agrees that, technically, these fears are grounded. “If [a builder] were to have a failure, I would have to say, ‘You’re out of compliance because you didn’t use approved materials.'” But he considers this an unlikely event because he would know how well a product worked in a limited test situation before allowing it on a project. Rather than cite an individual in such a predicament, “I’d just say we can’t use this, we’ll have to go with something else.” Holm agrees that allowing a new product requires a balanced approach. If a contractor is approved to use a newer product, he typically is made responsible if there’s a breach, but if the more traditional product would have failed as well under the circumstances, the contractor is not cited for liability. He explains that because a new product usually has been included in the project plan, he considers failures a responsibility shared between his agency and the contractor. Fielding SolutionsManufacturers believe that the climate for establishing new products would improve drastically if all new methods underwent standardized, independent testing. Carpenter paid for a third-party research arm supervised by EPA to compare his static-slicing technique to trenching; results supported the benefits of Carpenter’s method. He considers current testing labs and organizations ineffective at measuring performance of large-scale, installation-dependent methods. He also critiques claims of high product performance, such as “99% effective,” when the testing area used might have been unrealistically small compared to actual usage sites or when testing failed to compare the product or method against an established procedure or against some control. Carpenter currently is working with research groups to establish a testing facility and approach that would standardize evaluations of new ESC products under more realistic field conditions. Singleton shares Carpenter’s frustration over what he considers unproven products. His Silt-Saver device was tested at the University of Georgia with a result of “85% better” sediment control performance over silt fence used for the same application, yet Singleton feels these impressive results have gained him little ground because of competition from untested competitors. Without minimum standards in the construction ESC industry, he complains, “a lot of junk products on the market won’t even flow water, yet they’re being used as equals to the performing products. They are cheap, and if they’re cheap, they’ll sell regardless of performance.” Iwinski supports the importance of testing new procedures, but he cautions that the chemical nature of polymers makes them poorly suited for an engineering testing design. He believes from his own experience that design specifications are eventually altered if a product performs well in the field. “We build a track record of how well [our product] works. Once this new pathway is generated within an individual geographic region, the regulatory agencies will modify the books.” Iwinski cites several states where this process has occurred. Although he believes that some contractors in the construction industry “will do everything they can not to do anything” for ESC, he maintains that other contractors are conscientious. “They know there are rules and potential penalties, and they’re going to do what they need to do to try to stay out of trouble and do the right thing.”Both Cheatham and Holm view part of their professional role as educating contractors on the effectiveness of ESC measures and encouraging interactions between manufacturers and contractors. In Newton County, Cheatham runs a mandatory soil erosion class for developers, offered quarterly, that allows them to view in the field both the effectiveness and failures of various ESC approaches. “They need to see with their own eyes exactly what works,” he believes. He cites a demonstration where builders witnessed the use of a granular polymer to control sediment loss. “We started at the top of the slope, and by the time the water hit the sidewalk, it was clear. That sticks with them.” Cheatham hopes to include such vendors as Singleton in his classes, allowing them opportunities to show their products and demonstrate their effectiveness. Holm describes a certification training requirement for project contractors in Minnesota, an effort carried out as a partnership between Minnesota DOT and the University of Minnesota. He credits this training for the open-minded approach of the contractors working with Minnesota DOT. Also, volunteer organizations, such as the Minnesota Seeders Association, the Minnesota Erosion Control Organization, and the Resource Professionals Alliance, introduce several new products each year at their respective workshops. With such efforts, Holm explains, “it’s easier to bring new things into the marketplace. There are also conferences, workshops, places for vendors to have exhibits.” Iwinski offers advice for ESC manufacturers just starting out, naming as the first rule representing a product honestly. He also advises approaching permitting agencies “at the top,” where officials possess autonomy and authority, which in his case means dealing with chief biologists or directors of state aquatic toxicology divisions. Finally, he stresses what might sound obvious: being prepared. Iwinski attributes the rapid acceptance of his product to a tremendous amount of advance work, years behind the lines conducting field screening and third-party toxicity testing. In short, diligence proves to be most important. “It’s like anything else,” he remarks, “you really stay at it, and if you just keep grinding, you’ll succeed. What level you succeed to just depends; a lot of it’s luck, a lot of it’s pure hard work, but you will succeed.”